ESSAY BY JIM SCLAVUNOS
The year 1997 began for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with the release of “Into My Arms”, the introductory single that heralded their impending album The Boatman’s Call. For fans familiar with the band’s output of nearly a decade and a half, the sound and character of this release – intimate, naked, minimalistic devotional music – came largely as a shock. For any listener who might have lost touch with the band’s music over the years, every aspect of this new presentation would have been extremely hard to reconcile with inflexible and oversimplified preconceptions of what Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were all about.
For Mick Harvey, 1996’s Murder Ballads album had served as the last word and final punctuation mark on a stylistic epoch that he felt reached its artistic climax with Let Love In. Murder Ballads, a freewheeling joyride tied together by its single-minded theme, still embodied the tenor and methodology of the Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds creative working process as had been demonstrated over the course of the previous eight recordings. However, Murder Ballads also proved to be the gateway into a stylistic sea-change that touched upon every aspect of songwriting, arranging, presentation and persona, eschewing full band arrangements and character-driven narrative for a stripped-down sound, meditative delivery and introspective lyrics — ‘the sort of record I’ve been wanting to make for years,” asserted Nick, “a record which is slow from beginning to end… Very sparse, very raw and beautiful.”
A traumatic separation, rehab, remorse and a brief but intense love affair had all kept Cave quite unsettled and uneasy for three years running. Whatever reservations Nick might normally have held about the aesthetic acceptability of directly baring one’s soul in song, psychologically the time was clearly ripe for him to submit such a work. “Looking back it probably should have been a solo album,” admits Mick. “We knew that at the time.” “Yeah, I agree,” says Cave.
The musical correlative to Nick’s bared-to-the-bone approach to the lyrics demanded an equally spare use of The Bad Seeds and the array of instrumentation they inherently put at his disposal. Cave instead chose to make his own stark piano playing the focal point of the arrangements, and urged his band mates to resist fleshing out the material, thereby leaving his emotive outpourings, melancholic poetics and epistemological ruminations that much more exposed and vulnerable.
Which in terms of the band’s participation in The Boatman’s Call posed a political dilemma, as Mick recollects: “I remember Nick asking me, ‘Is everyone going to be there in the studio?’ It threw up a whole new challenge: can The Bad Seeds know when not to play things?”
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were by this point an eight man strong operation, having recently added multi-instrumental wild man Warren Ellis of The Dirty 3 to their ranks. Warren, who first worked with the band as a session violinist on Let Love In, had struck up a strong relationship with the band — Nick in particular –and his deranged accordion and ferocious fiddle on Murder Ballads’ “The Curse of Millhaven” was a highlight of that album. Inevitably, Warren was invited in and quickly became a vital member. As it turned out, Nick found Warren’s raw and ragged violin tone the perfect complement to the sombre melodies and spartan piano he was utilizing on The Boatman’s Call; but Warren, like all the band members, recognized the need to exercise sensitivity and restraint in order to preserve the fragile nuanced minimalism this collection of songs demanded. In the end, Mick contends, “I think the band came through with flying colours. People stepped back and Nick really took charge on that record.”
A good portion of The Boatman’s Call dwells on the subject of Cave’s short-lived but turbulent romance with singer/songwriter Polly Jean Harvey. Cave and PJ’s duet on “Henry Lee” was a key track and became the second single to be taken from Murder Ballads. Their mutual passion ignited during the making of the video for that song, but only endured (with various ups-and-downs) for a scant four months. Cave’s lyrics for “Far From Me” treat the blossoming of their love and its gradual withering verse by verse. It took him about four months to write, basically over the course of the relationship.
In a lecture entitled “The Secret Life of The Love Song” that he had prepared for the 1998 Vienna Poetry Festival, Nick dissected “Far From Me”, along the way providing insights to his beliefs in the transformative function of songwriting: “The first verse was written in the first week of the affair and is full of all the heroic drama of new love as it describes the totality of feeling whilst acknowledging the potential for pain – ‘for you I’m dying now’. It sets the two lovers it describes against an uncaring world – a world that fucks everybody over – and brings in the notion of the physical distance suggested in the title.”
Cave reports that he found himself incapable of completing the song until just after the affair had ended. “I find quite often that the songs I write seem to know more about what is going on in my life than I do,” he confessed. “I have pages and pages of fourth verses for this song written while the relationship was still sailing happily along. One such verse went: ‘the camellia, the magnolia have such a pretty flower/ and the bells of St. Mary’s inform us of the hour.’ Pretty words, innocent words, unaware that any day the bottom would drop out of the whole thing.”
Cave goes on to explain that songs that treat actual events in one’s life in a poetic manner can take on a life of their own long after the events that inspired the song have ended, staying alive in the same way that memories do; but being alive the songs also grow and undergo change and development. “The songs that I have written that deal with past relationships have become the relationships themselves. Through these songs I have been able to mythologize the ordinary events of my life, lifting them from the temporal plane and hurling them way into the stars. The relationship described in ‘Far From Me’ has been and gone but the song itself lives on, keeping a pulse running through my past. Such is the singular beauty of songwriting.”
The subject of love lost and found interweaves through the album from beginning to end; Cave’s other great theme — that of God, or more accurately man’s relationship to the divine — flows in a profound undertow throughout this collection of songs as well. Most overtly addressed in the first lyric one hears on the album “Into My Arms”, Cave’s opening line casts down the gauntlet, rejecting the notion of an interventionist God, the human race in supplication to a metaphysical puppet-master. Cave instead favors of a concept of a God linked intrinsically with and holistically defined by individual human experience — with a healthy dose of doubt thrown in.
The line “There is a man who spoke wonders, well I’ve never met him,” from “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For” is characteristic of Cave’s mixture of yearning and questioning uncertainty. In “There Is A Kingdom”, he paraphrases ideas borrowed from both the Gospel of Thomas (“the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you”) and Emmanuel Kant (“the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”), again positing the inward presence of the divine, a God we carry around within us, that is part of us and whose contours and purpose is shaped by us; a God not just of theological speculation or philosophical contention, but a vital inseparable component of subjective human experience.
Many critics at the time deemed The Boatman’s Call a masterpiece; many more celebrate it still as Cave’s most poignant work. But, par for the course, the man himself has found occasion to make dismissive remarks about it, claiming, “I was making a big heroic melodrama out of a bog-standard rejection.” Cave has also conceded that he on some level is still uncomfortable with the self-mythologizing lyric and emotional aggrandizement that goes hand-in-hand with it. “For me confessional writing is a dead end,” he objects. “There’s something about making heroic your own little pains that sticks in my craw.”